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Say 'sorry' for apologising

   

Business Times, June 19, 2010

By JOYCE HOOI

AS A BP shareholder, I've had ample opportunity to resoundingly introduce my palm to my forehead over the past few weeks.

It should have been expected, of course, when you call your oil rig Deepwater Horizon - a name worthy of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie.

Of course it blew up. It had something to live up to. Now BP is in deep something, alright. It's just not water.

I am not sure which is more reason for chagrin - the fact that chief executive Tony Hayward keeps apologising to the American people, or that the US Congress discovered to its surprise on Thursday that Mr Hayward knew very little about how the rig blew up.

Of course Mr Hayward knows nothing about well design and cement engineering. He's a CEO.

It is a universal corporate law that the higher up you go, the less you know about your organisation, what it does or what it is exactly that you do when you're not cutting ribbons or planting saplings with a shovel that has a ribbon on it.

By the time you've clawed your way to just above middle-management, you'll be darned if you can remember what your company's name is.

For a moment, Mr Hayward appeared to have been struck by this name-amnesia phenomenon, taking it squarely on the chin when President Barack Obama referred to BP as British Petroleum.

That's not its name. It hasn't been British Petroleum since 1998.

And while Mr Hayward has been channelling a fumbling Hugh Grant by saying terribly British things like 'deeply sorry' and 'so distraught', his company is about as British as a Buick.

Americans holding a 'Strip BP of its assets' banner in Washington a few days ago would do well to remember several inconvenient truths. There are almost as many American BP shareholders as there are British ones. Half of BP's directors are American. And BP has twice as many American employees as British ones.

These facts would have been irrelevant if Mr Hayward had not been strong- armed into awkwardly apologising to the 'American people' and giving them a US$20 billion kitty.

Wouldn't the American people like to hear other more pertinent apologies? Maybe a pastel Hallmark card from an American tobacco firm that reads 'Sorry About The Cancer' would be nice. Or maybe they could send every other country in the world a gift basket. 'No Hard Feelings About The Sub-prime Crisis' would go down rather well with a honey-baked ham. There will be enough space on the note for 'PS, sorry about George W Bush. Our bad'.

No one actually expects these apologies because there is implicit acceptance of the fact that bad things happen from a concatenation of profit-making, risk-taking and circumstance, all of which are inevitable in capitalism.

Whatever corners BP might have cut in drilling the well, it stands to reason that it had the most vested interest in making sure the oil did not gush out and end up all over a pelican instead of in an SUV.

If anything, with the rig explosion, it was guilty not of disregarding the interests of the environment, but its own.

In any case, some people are indeed owed an apology - like the residents of Bhopal, India.

In 1984, a gas leak from a Union Carbide subsidiary's plant in the slums of Bhopal killed almost 4,000 people and affected 300,000. Union Carbide officials at the time called the disaster an 'incident'. It would be churlish to point out that Union Carbide was an American company, so I won't do it.

It took the company five years to cough up a settlement of US$470 million (US$802 million in 2009 dollars) to the people of Bhopal.

The BP explosion killed 11 people - who, interestingly enough, have not been in the news as much as the oil-covered pelicans.

Within two months, BP has agreed to hand over US$20 billion, a lot of it funded by the dividends that it will not be paying shareholders like myself. As apologies go, since Mr Hayward appears to be on a roll, I would like one too.





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